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Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Pen and ink
Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science

Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: Pen and ink

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Ballpoint pens

Ballpoint pens 

One of the loudest screams I have ever heard from my mother was on the day my dad spilled indelible blue ink on the new living room rug.

Installed only two months earlier the wall-to-wall broadloom carpet was the pride of our house. Now there was a 3-inch blue stain staring up right in the center entrance and it stayed there for years because no one knew how to clean it up without spreading it.

When friends dropped over you could see their eyes dart to the big spot. It was hard to miss. I could never figure out why dad chose that exact spot to fill his fountain pen. I guess back in those days, that was all you wrote with.

Today nobody uses fountain pens anymore because they are just too cumbersome and messy. It’s hard to believe but ballpoint pens were rare in the ‘50s so it’s fitting that we take a look at the history of ballpoint pens and their ink.

The first practical ballpoint pen was invented by Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist and artist, June 10, 1938. By going via Paris to Buenos Aires, Argentina, he escaped the Nazis and set up a shop there to manufacture his invention.

Getting help from his brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, they formed “Bíró Pens of Argentina” and filed for a British patent in 1943. Somewhere along the line, British entrepreneur Henry Martin saw Biro’s pen and realized its value for air crews making high altitude navigational calculations. It could write blot-free and was unaffected by low or changing atmospheric pressure.

The new ballpoint pens were found to be more versatile than fountain pens and had less ink leakage, especially important when working with maps. Martin bought the rights and began small scale production back in England exclusively for the RAF. Although others had tried to invent such pens, some dating back as far as 1888, Bíró’s innovation successfully coupled ink-viscosity with a ball-socket mechanism which acted compatibly to prevent ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow.

Immediately after World War II, many companies sought to commercially produce their own ballpoint pen design. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Eversharp Company, a maker of mechanical pencils, teamed up with Eberhard Faber in 1945 to license the rights, hoping for sales in the rapidly expanding United States. But they had competition.

During the same period, American entrepreneur Milton Reynolds came across a Biro ballpoint pen during a business trip to Buenos Aires. Immediately seeing potential, he purchased several ballpoint samples, returned to the United States, and founded the Reynolds International Pen Company. Using a team of designers, he bypassed Biro’s patent with sufficient design alterations to obtain an American patent, beating Eversharp and other competitors to the punch.

Reynolds introduced his pen to the US market in October 1945 at the department store Gimbels in New York City. Selling for $12.50 each (about $178 in 2020 dollars) the “Reynolds Rocket” became the first commercially successful ballpoint pen, selling thousands. Unfortunately, by the next year, consumer interest subsequently plunged due to market saturation and by the early 1950s the ballpoint pen boom had subsided and Reynolds went out of business.

Realizing that it was the pricing that caused the collapse of the ballpoint pen market, European ink maker Marcel Bich bought out the patent for $2 million from Bíró and introduced a low cost model to the American marketplace in 1953. Bich used his knowledge of the writing instrument trade and specialty inks. He christened the pen “The Bic” and it became the ballpoint brand recognized globally today. Initially, even with the low price, Bic pens struggled until the company launched its “Writes The First Time, Every Time!” advertising campaign in the 1960s.

Both Biro and Bich knew that the ink was the secret to the success of the ballpoint pen.

Typically, ballpoint pen ink is a paste containing around 25 to 40 percent dye. The dyes are suspended in a solvent of “oil,” the most common being benzyl alcohol or phenoxyethanol. The oils mix with the dyes to create a smooth paste that dries quickly after rolling out.

To lubricate the ball the inks contain fatty acids that help when writing. In general, the more viscous the ink, the faster it will dry but more writing pressure needs to be applied to dispense ink. The standard Bic pen does have more “friction” during its use than the newer gel ink pens.

The dyes used in blue and black ballpoint pens are basic dyes based on triarylmethane and acid dyes derived from diazo compounds (those having a N=N branch). Common blue dyes include Prussian blue, Victoria blue, or methyl violet. Black inks contain carbon black particles. The bromine-based dye eosin is often used for red ink. Green inks, sometimes used for writing important documents, contain iron sulfate and gallic or tannic acids.

Some ballpoint pens offer erasable ink. Here the ink formula has a property similar to rubber cement, allowing the ink to be literally rubbed clean from the writing surface before drying. Because the ink is very viscous, this type of pen requires a pressurized cartridge to facilitate ink flow, allowing the pen to write upside-down.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and Vice President of Engineering at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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